Congress Could Use a Reminder of What’s at Stake for Our Wildlife
On Endangered Species Day, Congress can do more to combat the threats to wildlife survival.
Each May, we observe Endangered Species Day, an opportunity to admire the diverse range of plants and animals that roam U.S. landscapes and oceans, and to celebrate the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the landmark law that has helped protect our most vulnerable species. As we mark another Endangered Species Day today, the stakes for wildlife survival continue to rise. The nature crisis continues to worsen. Climate change is wreaking havoc on our biodiversity, and more than a million species are still staring down extinction within decades. The future for wildlife is feeling grim.
Congress has done little to address the biodiversity crisis and protect imperiled species. Since the start of this Congress, some lawmakers have targeted the Endangered Species Act with a string of legislative attacks. In fact, when you search “Endangered Species Act” on congress.gov for the 118th Congress, you’ll find a slew of bills that have been introduced to this effect. All are intended to undermine the ESA’s science-based protections, limit use of the law, and water down its effectiveness. If passed into law, these bills would make it more difficult to list species in the first place; in essence, they would weaken the key elements of the ESA that have helped successfully recover many iconic vulnerable species.
These attacks are real threats to wildlife and the law that protects them, not just messaging. In the past several weeks, Congress has started voting on some of these measures. Late last month, the House Committee on Natural Resources held a markup where it passed out of committee, along party lines, a slate of bills that would remove federal protections under the Endangered Species Act for gray wolves across the United States, and for grizzly bear populations in the northern Continental Divide and Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. These bills would turn management over to the states, thereby opening the door for these creatures to be killed through aggressive hunting seasons and other lethal methods and risking a backslide in recovery progress.
Both gray wolves and grizzly bears are considered success stories under the ESA. The federal protections afforded under the law allowed these species to narrowly avoid extinction, but their road to recovery continues to be under threat. Gray wolf populations are already federally delisted in the Northern Rockies, thanks to previous congressional action in 2011 and 2017, which led to wolf hunting seasons and anti-wildlife bills in those states that openly aim to reduce wolf populations. Similarly, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming have foreshadowed their intention to reverse important progress made to recover grizzly bear populations. Existing state regulatory frameworks fail to commit to sustaining recovery progress and state legislatures are increasingly co-opting wildlife management decisions from the experts, which will subject delisted grizzly bears to extreme mismanagement that is out of step with modern science and ethics.
These bills would also prohibit any judicial review for these decisions, fundamentally circumventing the scientific basis of the ESA and curtailing the public’s ability to participate in this process. Litigation brought by NRDC and other environmental organizations in 2021 successfully argued that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s (FWS) decision in 2020 to delist gray wolves nationally violated the ESA because the agency failed to evaluate the status of wolf populations and their historical ranges across the country, instead justifying its decision based on a single population in the Great Lakes region without properly identifying or interpreting the broader threats and impacts to the species. The ability to legally challenge these decisions ensures that the ESA is not subject to political whims and gives our most imperiled species a fair shot at survival. Recovering iconic species like wolves and grizzly bears must be based on science, with adequate safeguards in place to support their survival. If—but more likely, when—these bills advance to the House floor, it is imperative that members of Congress oppose them.
In the Senate, the situation is just as dire. Over the last several weeks, senators voted on three resolutions that would dramatically weaken the Endangered Species Act. All three resolutions use the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to reverse decisions made by the FWS: listing two populations of the lesser prairie-chicken and the northern long-eared bat as threatened and endangered species under the ESA, and rolling back a harmful Trump-era rule that limited habitat protections designed to help species adapt to climate change. Chillingly, all three resolutions passed.
A blunt instrument with far-reaching impacts, the CRA has particularly harmful consequences for threatened and endangered species. The CRA is an extreme tool that can be used only to repeal a federal rule in its entirety. It provides a straight up or down vote on whether a rule should exist, requiring only a simple majority to pass a resolution of disapproval. If passed into law, a CRA voids the underlying regulation in question and prevents an agency from ever issuing a future regulation that is “substantially similar.” Any species that has its federal protections stripped under a CRA would be left vulnerable in the future regardless of population or habitat declines.
For the lesser prairie-chicken and northern-long eared bat, whose populations have continued to decline despite voluntary conservation efforts by states and industry, federal protection under the ESA is the last resort for their survival. The Senate’s passage of these CRAs brings us one step closer to dooming these species to extinction and sends a dangerous message that politics trump science-based decision-making.
We can almost certainly expect the House majority to follow suit and bring these resolutions—along with other bills like the ones mentioned above targeting wolves and grizzlies—to the House floor for a vote sooner rather than later. It will be critical for members of Congress to speak out against these bills and oppose them, because if history is anything to go by, the outcome will not be good.
Despite President Biden threatening to veto these resolutions, if the House also votes to pass these CRAs, it will mark the first time that Congress has ever attempted to use this tool to rescind ESA protections for species. Instead of having something to celebrate for Endangered Species Day, the passage of these CRAs could spell out possible extinction for the lesser prairie-chicken and northern long-eared bat, and signal the same fate to countless other species currently listed under the ESA with shifting habitat needs that are impacted by climate change.
On the 50th anniversary of the ESA, Congress should be lauding this highly successful cornerstone law, not stripping it. Thanks to the ESA, we have recovered iconic species like the bald eagle, California condor, black-footed ferret, and American alligator, and we continue to fight for the survival of others like the Florida panther, whooping crane, blue whale, gray wolf, and grizzly bear that would already be extinct if it weren’t for the ESA. When it was signed into law half a century ago, the ESA had broad bipartisan backing in Congress and robust public support to ensure that our nation’s wildlife thrives for future generations. Most Americans today across party lines and geographic ties still feel strongly about supporting the ESA; they love wildlife and nature. But unless Congress takes its head out of the sand, the ESA may be facing the same fate as the hundreds of species and landscapes that depend on it: extinction.
Endangered Species Day is the perfect opportunity to remind Congress that this is not the time to gut protections for our most imperiled wildlife. Not now. Not ever.